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Civilian casualties surge in Afghan fighting, UN says

KABUL — Civilian casualties in Afghanistan surged 24 percent through the first half of the year, reaching their highest levels since 2009 amid increased ground combat between insurgents and government forces, according to the United Nations. The findings were released as a Taliban attack unfolded in the densely populated center of Kandahar, the main city in southern Afghanistan.

At least nine people were killed in the Kandahar assault and the ensuing gunbattle, including four civilians, Afghan officials said, violently illustrating how ground fighting, as opposed to improvised explosive devices, has emerged as the deadliest facet of the war. The UN report said that the death toll this year was especially high for women and children.

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In Kandahar, officials said 22 attackers tried to storm the provincial governor’s office and the police headquarters shortly before noon, detonating suicide vests and car bombs. All of them were killed in the ensuing firefight, along with five policemen and the four civilians, said General Abdul Raziq, the police chief of Kandahar province.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on their website, without mention of the casualties they had inflicted.

The Taliban rarely acknowledge killing civilians. But the twice-yearly UN updates on civilian deaths have regularly found the Taliban responsible for roughly three quarters of such casualties, and the latest report indicated that the trend held steady through the first six months of 2014. Progovernment forces were responsible for less than 10 percent of the 1,564 civilians killed, the UN report said, and about 12 percent of the casualties could not be attributed to a specific party.

The report illustrated how exceptionally bloody the war has become as composition of the forces has changed. For the most part, the Americans have stopped fighting. Afghan forces are in the lead in combat across the country. Spikes in violence have occurred across Afghanistan, partly because the insurgents no longer have to worry about coalition troops coming to the aid of the Afghan forces.

The numbers, to some degree, bear this out. While insurgents were responsible for double the number of civilians killed compared with the same period in 2009, that figure has halved for progovernment forces — almost entirely the result of fewer coalition airstrikes.

The increase in fighting challenges assertions made early in the coalition troop drawdown that the insurgents would be less willing to fight their fellow Afghans. While in the past the Taliban might have often opted for roadside bombs to attack the well-armed coalition forces, they have recently been increasingly willing to test their luck with face-to-face fighting against the Afghan forces, particularly in areas with dense civilian populations.

While the rules of engagement for international forces are geared specifically to minimize civilian casualties, Afghan forces and insurgents are less discriminating. The Afghan army regularly lobs mortar shells into villages; militants fire rockets at civilian areas.

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